The jovial energy that typically radiates from Gilbert’s El Indio restaurant is muted this week with the death of the restaurant’s namesake Gilbert Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was a beloved figure in the community and the successful restaurant helps define the city that he came to call home.
His family is gathered on a summer day in the corner booth of the restaurant’s faux-celebrity/softball team wall, the Coyote Corner.
Most of Rodriguez’s nine children — Carmen, Gilbert, Ricardo, Fernando, Teresa, Susana, Estela, Javier and Chavela — are present, each saying their own piece about their father, who passed away at 90 years of age.
“Kindness filled his heart,” Chavela said.
“He was hardworking…and stubborn,” Fernando said with a smile.
“He was my best friend,” according to Rodriguez’s nephew, Miguel Ramirez.
“We are who our dad made us,” Ricardo said. “I didn’t like his teachings sometimes, but it worked. We all have a strong work ethic because of him. And the family? He was the trunk of this family tree. He branched out and reached everyone. He wasn’t just Papi and abuelito, he was involved with everyone—schools and churches, lives and families.”
“He was a very affectionate man,” his wife Carmen said.
People shuffled in and out, relatives and restaurant-goers, to say what they felt about the man.
Eventually, Rodriguez’s son, also named Gilbert, told the story of his father’s life.
Gilbert Rodriguez Sr. was born August 31, 1928, in Texcoco, Mexico. He lived in Mexico City but after the Mexican Revolution, he and his family moved to Guadalajara, Jalisco where his father opened up a small store. It was not a successful endeavor due to a lack of experience and his father then worked for the rest of his life in a bakery.
“My grandfather lost the store because he gave credit to everybody.” the younger Gilbert said. “My dad kept that in mind and decided to run his business differently. That’s a reason his restaurant has lasted so long.”
The local restaurant remains cash only to this day.
Rodriguez borrowed money to come to the United States to work in the fields; but when that did not pan out because of the cold weather Rodriguez eventually made his way to Santa Monica to work in restaurants such as Rae’s, The Ivory Tower, El Mira Mar, Del Mar, Lobster House, The Round Table and finally The Branding Room.
He and his co-workers enjoyed an unparalleled comradery.
“They had it good,” the younger Gilbert commented, with a laugh. “Young men from Mexico with all the food and drinks they could want and they lived right by the beach.”
Gilbert says his father lived in an apartment complex near the Rand Corporation, a stone’s throw from the beach. He says his father and friends would call themselves “The Estrellas,” because they felt so lucky. “Like Hollywood stars.”
While Rodriguez enjoyed the fruits of his labor, he couldn’t fully enjoy it without his family.
He ultimately called for them and moved his family to Venice.
He got his start in the restaurant business with the help of his wife’s brother, Carlos Haro. In the early ’60s Haro opened a restaurant on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles called, El Rincon Maya and when that closed down he opened La Cabaña in Venice. It is still in operation on the corner of Rose and Lincoln, the longest-running restaurant of several restaurants in the family.
Rodriguez worked at the Branding Room in Santa Monica. Rick Oxman, Branding Room’s owner, took an immediate liking to him. He liked his hard work ethic and the way he treated and valued his family.
“He was just an unbelievable person,” the 91-year-old Oxman said. “He worked for me for twenty years in my restaurant. He took care of his job and his children. He took ‘em swimming after hours, after working day and night. He still found time for his kids. An unbelievable person.”
Rodriguez started out in the kitchen and Oxman said he was so good with people, he made him a busboy and saw Gilbert ascend his way up to the bartender position.
“Whatever he set his mind to, he was the best at it,” Oxman said.
Carmen, Rodriguez’s daughter, described her father’s journey from busboy to bartender.
“Before he became a bartender he’d see them and say, I can do that,” Carmen said. “So he had me make cards and test him on drinks. He’d memorize them, walk up and down and up and down and repeat them. That’s what made him successful. His will and his fortitude. He’d do it, sometimes, I think, even just to prove to himself.”
Rodriguez was a successful bartender but had dreams of running his own place. He bought El Indio restaurant on Pico and opened its doors on May 20, 1974. He liked the restaurant and its interior and exterior so much that he kept the name and decor and just slapped his own name on it.
Family helped to support Gilbert’s investment those first shaky years. His wife Carmen worked in the kitchen while his nephew Miguel and brother-in-law Carlos assisted Gilbert in restaurant operation.
“Here on Pico you could sit down and watch the street for ten minutes and not see a car go by,” Gilbert Jr. said. “It would be empty.” He recalls that on Fridays, at the round table, usually occupied by a family of five, they would be surrounded by the waiters, all ready to serve them because there were no other customers.
The kids would spread the word to friends.
“That’s how it grew,” Gilbert’s daughter Carmen said. “People knew about this place from us and our dad. We didn’t have the technology, we had to tell everyone.”
Customers loved Rodriguez and his family’s jovial nature and kept coming back, bringing friends in droves with them. Their personal touch at the restaurant invigorated business. Rodriguez paid customers back by treating them like royalty.
“This is my Cheers,” Fred Klimenko, a longtime patron of the restaurant said. “It’s a cornerstone of the community. I’ve been coming here since ‘78. It wasn’t like any other place, everyone was friendly and that was largely from Gilbert. Don Gilberto, as I call him. He was a kind and stately man. You knew he was El Jefe by the way he carried himself, but he was always trying to make you laugh, make you feel comfortable.”
Towards the twilight of his life, Rodriguez was diagnosed with cancer and had to step away from the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. Even through chemotherapy, even after his body won the war against cancer, he still would call nightly to check in on his restaurant.
“I’m sure it was a little annoying for everyone at the time,” his daughter Chavela says with a laugh. “But I know we all miss it now.”
In his final days, the 90-year-old Rodriguez was as hard-working as he was in his restaurant. His caretaker Ines Chavez says he never asked for help, telling her “I can do what I need to myself,” and tongue-in-cheek, Gilbert told her maybe he could help her do some tasks around the house.
“If we tried to get someone to bathe him or cook for him he wouldn’t let us,” Chavez said. “He was a strong, proud man.”
In his final moments, Rodriguez, the family man, used his remaining strength to talk to each and every one of his family members that were present. A final goodbye.
On one of Rodriguez’s last days, his daughter Susana asked, “What’s important to you, what do you want to say to us?” He replied, “Buena familia. Tengo buena familia.” Good family. I have a good family.
A rosary for Gilbert Rodriguez will take place on Tuesday, August 13 at Holy Cross, 5835 W. Slauson Ave., 630 p.m. His burial will take place the following day, Wednesday, August 14, 9:30 a.m. with a requiem mass to follow. A reception will occur at 2 p.m. at 2790 Club Drive, Los Angeles, California 90064.